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Why Gonzaga vs. Texas A&M is Must-See TV: The Intangible Leadership of Smith & Vandersloot

Over the past three days, Texas A&M University coach Gary Blair has bet a reporter a Diet Coke over trivia, disparaged Seattlites for spending too much at Starbucks, received a phone call from his wife about his wealthy cousin in Seattle during a press conference, and even joked about recruiting Seattle Storm fans to counter Gonzaga University's home state advantage in tonight's second round game in Seattle.

In other words, the guy knows how to put on a good press conference.

Perhaps he was baited into the latte comment (and his wife arguably "baited" him as well), but the point is this: he stands out as one of the biggest coaching personalities in women's college basketball.

The personality that manifests itself in the form off-hand press conference humor also helps him relate to players.

"He's funny, he's a funny guy," said TAMU forward Damitria Buchanan. "A lot of times in practice he'll start practice telling us a story or something and we're all standing there like, ‘Ok, uhhh...can we move on?' But it's cool playing for a guy like him. He's laid back and we get to have fun and also work hard at the same time."

All that said, one of Blair's better tangents of the weekend was a hockey-based tangent about assists that he used to describe Sydney Colson's value to the team.

"She's our little energizer bunny and she does the little things and she finds the seams in the defense," said Blair. "I'm surprised that she only had two assists...Sometimes it's like a hockey player: you can have two assists and sometimes she does that, she sets of the pass that leads to the assist. And maybe they'll change that rule for me because I'm a hockey buff too."

The issue of hockey assists is certainly not a novel idea - I tracked them sporadically for WNBA games I watched in 2008 and while I believe there is value to both hockey assists and lost assists, it's difficult to determine what that value is without having a clear understanding of the range. And of course there are other factors that are even harder to measure: to what extent was the passer responsible for forcing the defense to shift in ways that created the scoring opportunity? To what extent was the decision to pass (or not) at a given point in time influenced by recognizing a hot shooter or mismatch? And does any of that add value to the assist itself?

Most recently, Tom Haberstroh of Hardwood Paroxysm recently added an additional wrinkle to this question of assists with his look at weighted assists, which is absolutely worth a read in terms of thinking about the value of passers and point guards in particular. Henry Abbot extends this line of thinking making one comment in particular:

The players who get the good assists - TrueHoop Blog - ESPN
If, as a point guard, you pass it to the same guy wide-open five times, and he misses all five, maybe it's your job to talk to him on the team plane, and figure out where he'd like that ball instead. If you work that kind of thing out, you help your team immensely, and the assist measure will reward the point guard for that.

If you don't have that conversation, well then, you get to blame your teammates for messing up your good assist numbers, but what's so great about that?

What's interesting about the ongoing dialogue about the value of assists and how they should be counted is that at some level it speaks to an obvious inability to difficulty of measuring things like court vision and basketball IQ. More interesting is that it demonstrates that there are some elusive intangibles in basketball that are worth trying to account for even if we can't quite figure out how to account for them.

When looking ahead to tonight's NCAA women's basketball tournament second round game in Seattle between Gonzaga University and Texas A&M university, it's interesting to think about the extent to which the statistical MVPs of the season become even more valuable when taking account for the intangibles they bring to the court that aren't counted.

Whereas Gonzaga point guard Courtney Vandersloot is an obvious fit for this conversation, TAMU wing Tanisha Smith also adds some interesting nuance to the discussion, not only in the way she creates assists on offense, but also denies them defensively.

When talking to the media yesterday, Vandersloot claimed that she was awful in their first game against Texas A&M, tallying 8 assists and 9 turnovers.

"Uh yeah -- I was awful during that game," said Vandersloot reflecting on the previous matchup. "We've been reminded of that plenty of times, haven't we coach Graves?"

Nevertheless, in watching Vandersloot play in Gonzaga's first round win against the University of North Carolina on Saturday night what was most impressive was that even when she made a bad pass it seemed to be a "good look" - an opportunity was there and even though it seemed risky, in the long run her ability to "see" those opportunities unfold during the flow of the game paid off. Against North Carolina, it paid off to the tune of 15 assists.

"If there's a finer point guard in the country, I don't know her," said Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves. "I think with someone like Courtney, she's a step ahead of the play. She's a step ahead of me most of the time, if you want to know the truth. She sees things that I can't see. She's certainly a special one."

Whether we regard that ability to see things unfold as a natural ability, a refined skill, or a personality trait, what makes watching Vandersloot so captivating - perhaps moreso than Colson - is that she makes distributing the ball to others look easy. Sure, one could take this as an opportunity to dispute how assists are counted - for example, New Orleans Hornets guard Darren Collison was recently credited with a questionable 20 assists against the incomparable Golden State Warriors - but Vandersloot makes everything look so routine as to diminish just how much of an impact she has on the game.

"I had no idea Courtney had 15 assists," said Graves. "We're used to it, but on this stage that's quite something against a great guard like Cetera [DeGraffenreid]."

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair laid more praise on Vandersloot's ability, further clarifying a skill she has as a point guard that separates her from others.

"If there's one thing that could improve in the women's game it's passing the basketball," said Blair. "Vandersloot puts it in the pocket. When I'm talking about you break down the film that shooter wants that ball right there - go up down and it's always on the money."

Vandersloot uses angles beautifully, finding gaps in the defense, making subtle moves to create gaps that aren't immediately evident, and sometimes recognizing the open player and just making the simple swing pass. There are times when her timing is so precise that her teammates don't even seem aware that they're open. The point is that when you have a player like that running the team it makes coaching significantly easier - rather than having to rely entirely on regimented sets to create scoring opportunities, you can trust someone on the court to recognize opportunities in the moment. It's what makes having great point guards so important to successful teams.

"That's what you want to see out of a point guard," said Blair about what Vandersloot does on the court. "I let my assistants recruit all the other positions. I recruit the point guard position."

Not to take anything away from the rest of Gonzaga's personnel, but it's hard to imagine them being as good as they are without the intangibles Vandersloot brings to the table that aren't necessarily captured in the box score or simply by describing basic skills. She is a player that almost must be watched in person in order to fully appreciate just to see how she navigates the court space.

However, as Blair describes wing Tanisha Smith, players in other roles can also possess these abilities.

The 9 assists Smith had in Texas A&M's win over Portland State University were certainly no accident.

"We run our offense through her a lot even though she's playing the three position," said Blair. "Whether we're running our triple post offense or whether we're running certain set plays, she's such a good passer - she knows how to throw the ball away from the defense, not just throw the ball."

Similar to Vandersloot, what makes Smith such outstanding player is that she makes everything seem so easy. In addition to clearly being the most athletic player on the court, whether watching her in practice or in games, what's most remarkable is that she manages to fit seamlessly within the flow of the game. The second she sees an opportunity open up, she finds ways to take advantage.

With 3:35 left in Saturday's first round win against Portland State University, Smith got the ball at the free throw line and seeing her defender off-balance, started to drive around the right elbow, avoiding the teeth of the defense in the middle of the paint. With her defender trailing, another came up to stop her when she got to the baseline. As the help came over leaving Kristi Bellock open on the opposite side of the key, Smith picked up her dribble and slung a one handed pass to Bellock for an easy layup.

In comparison to Vandersloot, Smith does make a number of plays simply by leveraging her superior athleticism and diverse skill set - guarding a long, athletic wing who can pull up for a fade away jumper, drive, or pass is a nightmare. Yet most impressive is that she rarely forces anything - she tends to have a heightened awareness of exactly what her team needs despite being arguably the team's biggest talent.

"She has the ability to create offense off of her passing," said Blair. "If she was a little more selfish she would be the leading scorer on our team, but she sometimes passes up good shots to set her teammates up with better opportunities. That just shows the unselfishness of this team."

Conversely, Smith is the player responsible for defending the opposing team's best player, forcing them into awkward positions more often than not.

For Smith, it's almost as though that ability to see the game on the offensive end transfers to her ability as a defender. While Smith was credited with three steals, the value of the tips that led to steals, passes deflected out of bounds, and jumping passing lanes to force would-be passers to second-guess their decision after picking up the ball. As a team that thrives off of frustrating offenses, Smith does it almost more than anyone

"A lengthy athletic guard," said PSU point guard Claire Faucher in describing Smith. "I think the length and then not being able to make the easy passes that I normally do -- just hitting the lanes and getting other people involved. I think I had to dribble and try to do a little bit more than I would have liked to."

However, for all of that talent and ability to change the flow of a game, teammates and coaches alike note that Smith is one of the quietest talents one might ever meet.

"I talk to the girls when I have to, but most of my leadership comes from my actions," said Smith yesterday. "Just like if we come out in practice a little sluggish or in a game. It's nothing major - we don't have many problems on our team and that's why we're so successful now."

So it's interesting to think about Smith and Vandersloot as leaders when so much of what they bring to teams according to both coaches and teammates is not only intangible, but also not necessarily vocal. Whereas Vandersloot's selflessness on the court might be seen as necessary for a point guard, Smith's selflessness at the wing might result in casual fans underestimating her ability. Just as Graves didn't notice Vandersloot's 15 assists because he perceives them as routine, Smith makes everything look so routine that perhaps her talent goes unnoticed.

Bottom line is that players capable of dropping 15 dimes or messing around and getting triple doubles are extremely valuable and have the ability to decide a game.

It's what makes tonight's game in Seattle one of the most exciting matchups of the tournament.

Related Links:

Live Blogging Gonzaga vs. Texas A&M: Fast-Paced, Transition Basketball In Seattle

Transition Points:

  • During tonight's game, I am going to track Haberstroh's assist numbers for Colson, Smith and Vandersloot. In the past, I have also noted taken note of "lost assists" -- passes that would have become assists if the player put the shot down -- and differentiated between assists that come off drives, fast breaks, and swing passes. Of course, it would take more than one game -- or ever one season -- to determine the full significance of these numbers, but it would be interesting to have some to sift through to think through some sort of "passer rating".
  • John Hollinger's pure point rating is also a number I keep track of for both college and WNBA games and I think it has been dismissed too hastily by some. First, people rightly there is no one metric that can possibly determine the full quality of a point guard. However, there are few better measures of point guard trustworthiness -- how effectively a player can create plays for others on the court. By incorporating minutes into the equation, it looks at how well a player creates plays given the number of minutes they play. Part of what makes Vandersloot great is that she takes risks which means she gets turnovers occasionally. What PPR measures is the payoff a team gets on that risk taking in the long run.
  • The game will be aired at 6:40 pm on ESPN2 and I will be at Bank of America Arena live blogging once again.